For six hours 150 years ago, in the heart of Morrisville, the crack of musket fire mixed with booming cannons and trampling hooves as one of the last battles of the Civil War was fought throughout town.
On Saturday, April 18, the town will commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Morrisville Station. Reenactors, historians and local experts will convene at Town Hall, near the wooded battlefield, to show visitors what life was like at the time for soldiers and civilians.
There are nearly a dozen demonstrations, lectures and presentations scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The main ceremony will occur at 1 p.m.
Ernest Dollar, the City of Raleigh Museum director who is an unofficial historian for Morrisville, said about 45 reenactors from all over the state will attend the event.
There will be an artillery demonstration as well as musket-toting soldiers, and people teaching visitors about games, food, music and other social aspects of the South in the 1860s.
And while history is sometimes sterilized in textbooks, living history events such as Saturday’s offer a chance for people to put a human face with long-ago dates and events.
“We’ve got women who are portraying refugees fleeing the incoming (Union) army, which is an interesting perspective that a lot of people kind of forget about,” Dollar said.
Much of the fighting happened in the woods south of what’s now Morrisville-Carpenter Road, between Town Hall Drive and Chapel Hill Road.
Cary’s Bryan Craddock, who teaches history and traditional dance classes in the area, will be participating Saturday. He is a Confederate officer reenactor, as well as a member of The Huckleberry Brothers Band, which plays music from the 1700s through 1865.
He said it’s important for people to be aware of history, especially in Morrisville, where there wasn’t a large-scale battle like at Bentonville in Johnston County, or a famous surrender like at Bennett Place in Durham, to attract attention.
“These little events tend to get overlooked,” Craddock said.
As time erases memories, and development erases the battlefield itself, few in Morrisville know about the dramatic skirmish that led directly to the end of America’s bloodiest conflict.
After Union forces captured Raleigh, the Confederates retreated to Morrisville with the intent of reaching Greensboro by train. They were loading up the rail cars on April 13 when Union artillery shells began raining down.
Rebel cavalry fought back, allowing most of the trains to escape. But after the fighting in Morrisville, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston decided his army couldn’t keep up the fight. He reached out to his Union adversary, Gen. William T. Sherman, to begin peace negotiations.
Less than two weeks later, Johnston surrendered his army of 90,000 men, the South’s largest fighting force. The war was over.
None of the reenactors coming to Saturday’s events are from Morrisville, and Craddock is one of a few from the area.
The 6th North Carolina Infantry, known as the Cedar Fork Rifles Company, formed in Morrisville in 1861. They weren’t present at the skirmish to defend their hometown, but a group that reenacts the rifle company will be on hand Saturday.
“First of all, I think the Morrisville skirmish is little known, so one of the purposes of the event is to share this piece of history,” said Ben Hitchings, Morrisville’s planning director who is helping organize the anniversary.
“And it’s a surprisingly dramatic skirmish, this fight for the station in town,” Hitchings said. “Shelling of the town, and a cavalry charge.”
Craddock has lived his entire life in Cary and has seen the area grow while its history is uncovered and then almost immediately paved over.
He said some children playing at Cedar Fork District Park in the ’80s found artillery shells submerged in Crabtree Creek. And stories circulate of construction workers finding artifacts from the skirmish but discarding them, unaware of their significance.
But the details of what kind of clothing the soldiers were wearing, or where the fighting occurred, or the tactics and weapons used, are what fascinate reenactors such as Craddock.
He even read the Confederate Army’s drill manual and learned to play instruments, including the Irish tin whistle, for performing the Civil War-era songs played by his band.
He said attendees Saturday will have plenty of opportunities to learn about a part of history many in the area have forgotten.
And for those who don’t care for history, he said, there will be plenty of singing and dancing, cooking, games and more to take people back to the same place, but in a very different time.
Craddock said he likes that it’s not a reenactment, but rather a chance for reenactors to talk with visitors and teach them about the subjects they find so fascinating.
Events like these, he said, “tend to be more charming than a (battle) reenactment. You get to talk to people. It’s more personal.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran
Want to go?
Events will be Saturday, April 18, at Morrisville Town Hall, 100 Town Hall Drive, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For details and more on efforts to preserve Civil War history, go to www.battleofmorrisville.org.
9 a.m. Event begins.
10 a.m. Demonstration of Civil War weapons, uniforms and equipment.
11 a.m. Cannon firing and discussion about the role of artillery in the Battle of Morrisville and the war in general.
11:30 a.m. Lecture by Suzy Barile, author of “Undaunted Heart,” a book about the true love story between a Union officer and a Southern woman.
Noon Presentation on the evolution of North Carolina’s troops and weaponry throughout the course of the war.
1 p.m. Anniversary ceremony.
2 p.m. Demonstration of Civil War weapons, uniforms and equipment.
2:30 p.m. Cedar Creek Rifles presentation on preserving Civil War antiques, including the Morrisville company’s original flag.
3 p.m. Cannon firing, and discussion about the role of artillery in the Battle of Morrisville and the war in general.
3:30 p.m. Lecture by historian Ernie Dollar on the Battle of Morrisville.
4 p.m. 19th-century dance lessons, taught to live period music.